Ain't We Got Fun?!

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"Ain't We Got Fun?!"

The title of one of the hit songs of 1921, "Ain't We Got Fun?!," puts into words the mood that dominated much of the decade called the Roaring Twenties. Although some citizens of the United States did not share in the good times, most benefited from the country's general economic prosperity. By and large, people had at least a little extra money in their pockets, and they also had a little more time to relax. These two factors combined to allow for an energetic pursuit of leisure that had never been seen before in the United States.

For the first two centuries of the nation's existence, the majority of people had to work very hard at the backbreaking, time-consuming tasks involved in building a new country. Hard work was, in fact, one of the core values of this white Protestant society, along with religion, restraint, and frugality (not spending much money). With the twentieth century came both different kinds of work and different attitudes about work. Mass production had resulted in consumerism: people wanted very much to buy a variety of things that in earlier days they might have done without. They bought

automobiles and household appliances, for example, to make their lives more convenient. But they also bought things to enhance their newly increased leisure time, especially radios, around which millions of families gathered each evening to hear shows like Amos and Andy, and tickets to movies and sporting events.

This new pursuit of leisure, along with the growth of the mass media, led to the emergence of popular idols, heroes drawn from the realms of motion pictures and sports. Movie fans adored actresses Clara Bow (1905–1965) and Louise Brooks (1906–1985), who seemed to embody the fun and freedom of the flapper (young women who dressed and behaved in a bold, modern way and who came to symbolize the free-wheeling spirit of the 1920s). Women swooned over the impossibly handsome, exotic Rudolph Valentino (1895–1926) and the dashing Douglas Fairbanks (1883–1939). They flocked to see Al Jolson (1886–1950) in the first "talkie" (movie with sound). It has been estimated that in the mid-1920s fifty million people in the United States went to the movies every week.

The heroes of the playing fields, boxing rings, golf courses, tennis courts, and swimming pools were many. They included baseball players like George Herman "Babe" Ruth (1895–1948), quite possibly the most popular and beloved sports figure of all time, football players like Red Grange (1903–1991), boxers like Jack Dempsey (1895–1983), golfers like Bobby Jones (1902–1971) and Walter Hagen (1892–1969), and tennis players like Bill Tilden (1893–1953) and Helen Wills (1905–1998). They also included a young swimmer named Gertrude Ederle (1906–), the first woman to swim across the English Channel (the body of water that lies between England and France), and an African American baseball player named Leroy "Satchel" Paige (1906–1982), who embodied the skill and determination of black athletes in the face of discrimination and limited opportunity.

New attitudes toward work and leisure

Advances in technology that occurred in the latter half of the nineteenth century led to the industrialization of much of the United States. As the twentieth century dawned, what had been a predominantly rural nation was changing. Farm laborers were moving to the city to work in factories. This new kind of job meant boring, impersonal, and sometimes unpleasant or even dangerous working conditions, but it paid fairly well. Because new labor laws had resulted in shorter work hours, people had both more money and more time in which to spend it.

Attitudes toward work and leisure had shifted too. During the Victorian Era (roughly the period from 1837 to 1901, when Queen Victoria ruled England), people had concentrated on working hard, behaving properly, and saving money. As the twentieth century unfolded, however, a new awareness of psychological theories, especially those of Sigmund Freud (1859–1939), whose ideas were very popular during the 1920s, began to encourage a more inward focus. Books about self-exploration and self-improvement became popular. The idea that individuals, many of whom suffered from impersonal workplaces and the sense that their work was meaningless, deserved to relax, have fun, and be entertained was gradually becoming the norm.

At the same time, mass production of relatively inexpensive consumer goods, such as cosmetics, records and record players, books, and household appliances, was taking place. Among the most essential items, in the eyes of many people, was a radio.

Millions tune in to radio

Basic radio technology had been around for several decades (see Chapter 4), but until the 1920s, only hobbyists had radios in their homes. That changed in 1920, after Dr. Frank Conrad (1874–1941), an engineer at the Westinghouse company in East Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, started broadcasting musical recordings from his home radio. The attention and listeners he attracted resulted in the founding of the country's first radio station, KDKA. More radio stations quickly sprang up, so that by the end of 1922 more than five hundred were operating. Whereas about $1 million had been spent on radios in 1920, in 1925 consumers spent $400 million on them.

By the end of the decade, more than twelve million families (or one-third of the population) would be listening to radios. In the words of historian Geoffrey Perret in America in the Twenties, "Nothing hadever succeeded on so vast a scale in so short a time." As more listeners tuned in, radio stations quickly expanded their programs to offer information, music, and sports coverage. Sporting events became especially popular, with announcers bringing fans on-the-spot accounts of boxing matches and baseball games.

The popularity of music and sports broadcasts was increasingly matched by the public's growing passion for variety and comedy shows, such as The Chase and Sanborn Hour and The Eveready Hour (sponsored by the Eveready battery company). Typical segments would feature the latest jazz music, opera selections, drama, lectures, and comedy. Some shows, like The Happiness Boys and Amos and Andy, focused exclusively on comedy. Amos and Andy was especially popular. Its title characters were African Americans who displayed stereotypical black qualities, such as foolish innocence; the show, however, was actually written and performed by two white men.

Entertainers were not the only voices heard on the radio in the 1920s. Politicians also recognized the potential of this medium for reaching a large segment of the population. Calvin Coolidge (1872–1933; served 1923–29) became the first U.S. president heard on the radio, making sixteen very effective, well-received broadcasts while in office. Popular evangelists (those who try to persuade others to become Christians) like Aimee Semple McPherson (1890–1944) also took advantage of radio as a means to address their followers and attract more converts.

A golden age for motion pictures

The technology for making motion pictures, like that of radio, existed before the 1920s. It was not until the end of the decade, however, that movies were made with sound. Before that, the actors in the so-called "silent movies" spoke only through printed text that appeared on the screen; sometimes film viewings would be accompanied by music played live in the movie theater. In the first two decades of the twentieth century, going to the movies, in tiny neighborhood viewing places called nickelodeons, was considered a lower-class entertainment, indulged in only by factory workers and other laborers.

During the 1920s, though, motion pictures became part of mass culture in the United States, something almost everybody enjoyed. Some have even called this decade the "Golden Age" of movies, while others reserve that title for the 1930s and 1940s, when the sound and color technologies introduced at the end of the 1920s were better developed.

A multimillion-dollar industry

The fact that people now had more money and time did not go unnoticed by the producers of motion pictures, and they made the most of the new pursuit of leisure. Interestingly, many of the top producers of the period were immigrants or the children of immigrants, such example is Louis B. Mayer (1885–1957), the head of the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studio, who had started life as a junk collector, who would achieve their own spectacular version of the American dream of success. Other leading producers included the four Warner Brothers and Cecil B. DeMille (1881–1959).

These men built up a multimillion-dollar industry based in Hollywood, California, where there was space to create large movie sets. Their motion pictures were shown in the thousands of movie theaters that were being built across the country; in fact, by 1926 there were twenty thousand movie theaters in the United States. Unlike the small, shabby nickelodeons of the old days, some of these were made to look like ornate palaces, with chandeliers and huge staircases. Every big and even medium-sized city prided itself on one or more fancy movie theaters, such as New York's Roxy, which seated five thousand viewers.

Swashbucklers, flappers, and exotic locales

This was the age of big epics and swashbucklers, stories of adventure with lots of action that often took place in the context of war, ancient history, or the untamed West. They always featured a romantic hero, played by someone like Douglas Fairbanks or John Barrymore (1882–1942), the great-grandfather of actress Drew Barrymore, who saved the day and won the pretty girl by the end of the movie. Also hugely popular with moviegoers was Rudolph Valentino, an Italian immigrant who made women swoon with his devastating handsomeness. Valentino was closely identified with the Middle Eastern character he played in The Sheik (1921), which took place in an exotic locale of the kind favored by audiences.

The leading female star of the 1920s was Clara Bow, whose bobbed hair, love of dancing, and carefree manner made her the essence of the flapper. In fact, she was called the "It Girl" because she was thought to possess a special, indefinable kind of attractiveness. Other popular actresses included Louise Brooks, Joan Crawford (1906–1977), and Gloria Swanson (1897–1983). A number of actresses who had not been born in the United States were appreciated by U.S. audiences for their exotic, mysterious beauty and glamour; examples include Greta Garbo (1905–1990) and Marlene Dietrich (1901–1992).

Delighting audiences with comedy

The classic comedies, most of them silent, of the 1920s are still treasured by movie fans. Films featuring the slapstick antics of the Keystone Kops, the duo of Stan Laurel (1890–1965) and Oliver Hardy (1892–1957), the deadpan humor of Buster Keaton (1895–1966), and the zany adventures of Harold Lloyd (1893–1971), delighted audiences. In Safety Last (1925), Lloyd wins the girl he loves by carrying off the dangerous stunt of climbing up a tall building.

Most gifted of all the comic actors, though, was Charlie Chaplin (1889–1997). He had performed on the English stage before coming to the United States, and he had a remarkable ability to pantomime (acting that consists of gestures instead of words) and a masterful sense of comic timing. Chaplin's endearing character of the Little Tramp, always dressed in baggy pants and a bowler hat, made him universally recognized and loved. The Tramp was shy, and his shabby clothes reflected his poverty, but he was neat and polite. He was perpetually yearning for a beautiful girl who seemed far out of reach. In such movies as City Lights (1931) and The Gold Rush (1925),

Fads of the Roaring Twenties

The Roaring Twenties was an era in which people sought more ways to entertain themselves. Whether it was to improve the mind, make money, or break records, numerous fads rose to popularity quickly, and some were gone just as fast. Here are some of the top fads that captured the imagination of the 1920s public.

Crossword Puzzles

The world's first collection of crossword puzzles was The Cross Word Puzzle Book, published by Richard Simon and Max Schuster. Sold with a pencil attached to each copy, The Cross Word Puzzle Book was a bestseller and sparked a nationwide craze. The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad equipped its trains with dictionaries for its crossword-crazy customers. College students were especially enthusiastic, and college campuses hosted competitions and even courses focused on crosswords.

Dance Marathons

One of the lasting popular images of the Roaring Twenties is that of an exhausted couple leaning against each other on a dance floor, desperately trying to keep dancing longer than anyone else and thus win a prize. Dance marathons were wildly popular during the decade. Across the nation, dancers competing for cash prizes devised ways to keep each other awake, from smelling salts to kicks and punches. Many records were set, the first on April 1, 1923, by thirty-two-year-old dance teacher Alma Cummings, who went through six male partners in her twenty-seven hours on a dance floor.

Flagpole sitting

This bizarre fad was started by a former boxer named Alvin "Shipwreck" Kelly. To attract publicity, a Hollywood theater paid Kelly to sit on top of a flagpole (equipped with a disk-seat and stirrups for his feet, to help him balance). He spent twenty-three days and seven hours on top of the pole, consuming little and sleeping for five minutes every hour. Kelly repeated his feat many times, spending a total of one hundred forty five days on flagpoles in 1929. He inspired many imitators, including several women and a teenager named Avon Freeman, who set the so-called "juvenile record" by sitting on a Baltimore flagpole for ten hours and ten minutes.


The ancient Chinese game of mahjongg, which resembles both dominoes and dice and is played with a set of 144 tiles of carved bone, grew extremely popular after it was introduced to the United States in 1922. Many women's mah-jongg clubs formed during the 1920s, and college students also took to the game, which became almost as common on college campuses as the card game of bridge. In 1923 more U.S. citizens bought mahjongg sets than radios. More than twenty rule books helped players sort through the game's complex rules.

the Tramp won the girl through his cleverness and good heart, making audiences laugh and sympathize along the way. Many saw Chaplin's character as embodying the triumph of human dignity in an increasingly dehumanized, unfair world.

The talkies are introduced

From the earliest days of the motion picture, inventors had tried to devise a way to incorporate music and speech into movies. Finally, backed by research money from the Warner Brothers movie studio, engineers at Western Electric invented a system called Vitaphone that worked fairly well, even though the sound and picture were run separately and had to be synchronized. Later technology would place the sound directly on the film carrying the images, and by the end of the 1930s, the silent movie would be a thing of the past. The only people who were disappointed by the new technology were those actors whose careers ended because their voices or accents were considered unsuitable for the talkies.

In 1926 Warner Brothers introduced the first motion picture with sound, a swashbuckling epic called Don Juan. This was not, however, a full-length movie, and it featured only synchronized music and sound effects, such as clashing swords, not speech. The next year, Warner Brothers achieved a milestone in motion picture technology when it released The Jazz Singer, the first full-length movie with synchronized dialog as well as music and singing. The movie featured actor and singer Al Jolson, who was already famous from his work on the Broadway stage. Considering the hostility that was directed toward immigrants during the 1920s, it is amazing that this film with not only a Jewish star but also a Jewish theme was so popular.

The Jazz Singer tells the story of Jack Robin, a second generation Jew and the son of a cantor (an official who sings religious music and leads prayers in a synagogue, a Jewish place of worship). The father wants his son to become a cantor too, but Jack has other ideas. He wants to be a jazz singer. Jack rejects the old ways and is estranged from his parents, but at the end of the movie he sings Kaddish (the Jewish prayer of mourning) for his father's funeral. The next night, Jack performs his own music at Madison Square Garden (a large arena in New York City). Thus tradition and modernity are reconciled. The Jazz Singer, which begins with Jolson's famous utterance, "You ain't heard nothin' yet!," was the top moneymaking film of the year, even though only five hundred theaters were equipped to show talkies.

Broadway musical comedies charm audiences

While those looking for intellectual stimulation could attend the plays of Eugene O'Neill or other dramatists (see Chapter 7), people interested in lighter entertainment on the live stage were going to the musical variety shows being produced on Broadway and elsewhere. Every year, producer Florenz Ziegfeld (1869–1932) introduced a new version of his Follies, which featured catchy songs and dancers doing the latest steps. Also produced annually was George White's Scandals, with songs by the talented brothers George (1898–1937) and Ira (1896–1981) Gershwin, and Irving Berlin's Music Box Review. Berlin (1888–1989) wrote many of the decade's most memorable songs, including "White Christmas," "There's No Business Like Show Business," and "Puttin' on the Ritz."

Also popular were musical comedies such as "I'll Say She Is!" with the comedy team the Marx Brothers and others with such stars as Fred Astaire (1899–1987), Jolson, Ethel Merman (1908–1984), and W.C. Fields (1879–1946). One of the most popular musicals of the decade was Showboat, based on a novel by Edna Ferber (1887–1968). Centered on a romance between a riverboat gambler and an entertainer, Showboat's interracial subplots and cast made it somewhat controversial.

People go wild for sports

The 1920s was definitely a decade of idols, from aviator Charles Lindbergh (1902–1974), who crossed the Atlantic alone in a small airplane (see Chapter 4), to movie stars like Fairbanks and Bow. The mass media had the power to bring people close to figures who seemed larger than life and whom everybody admired. Some of the most beloved of these heroes came from the world of sports. At the same time, people were themselves participating in sports in ever-greater numbers.

The increase in leisure time and spending money that occurred during the 1920s gave people the opportunity to enjoy both watching and playing sports. In fact, they spent about $200 million per year on sporting goods such as tennis rackets and golf clubs during the decade. Much interest was spurred by the achievements of the great athletes who seemed to emerge in every imaginable sport, especially baseball, football, boxing, golf, and tennis.

At the same time, however, not everyone who excelled in athletics was treated with the same admiration. Due to the Jim Crow laws (the system of legalized segregation that, beginning in the 1890s, mandated separate schools and public facilities for blacks and whites and put restrictions on voting rights) in the South and the discrimination common throughout the nation, African Americans were prevented from achieving the same heights as white athletes. Nevertheless, many are now remembered and revered, especially those who played baseball in the Negro leagues formed in and around the 1920s.

Baseball gains popularity

The game of baseball had existed for several decades, but in the 1920s the sport underwent a major change that made it much more fun to watch and much more popular with the public. Instead of the short hits and base running that had been employed in its early years, baseball now became a game of long balls hit by talented, powerful batters. The sport had formerly been calm and somewhat slow, but now attentive spectators waited in the stands for the thrill of the home run. Their reaction led to the invention of a new kind of ball (easier to hit for long distances), new and larger stadiums, and new rules (such as one preventing pitchers from applying substances to balls). The result was larger crowds and bigger salaries for players.

A decade that would prove to be full of exciting, marvelous moments in sports began on a sour note, however. In September 1920 eight members of the Chicago White Sox team were charged with conspiring to lose the 1919 World Series, which they had played against the St. Louis Cardinals, in exchange for bribes totaling $80,000. Among the accused were two of the most promising young players in baseball, pitcher Eddie Cicotte (1894–1969) and left fielder "Shoeless Joe" Jackson (1887–1951). The White Sox had been heavily favored to beat the Cardinals, so a group of gamblers came up with the idea of getting the team to intentionally lose, so that anybody who had bet on the Cardinals would win a lot of money.

Because important evidence disappeared before the trial, the White Sox players were acquitted (found innocent) by the court. However, the newly appointed commissioner of baseball, Kenesaw Mountain Landis (1866–1944), who was also a judge and a passionate baseball fan, disregarded that verdict and banned the eight players from baseball for life. Landis was determined to protect the sport he loved from being tainted by gambling.

"The Babe" to the rescue

Any discussion of the brightest sports stars of the 1920s has to begin with George Herman "Babe" Ruth, who is still revered by many as the greatest of them all. In addition to all of his other accomplishments, Ruth is credited with restoring the public's faith in baseball after the shameful scandal involving the Chicago White Sox. Born into a poor Baltimore family, Ruth was sent at the age of ten to St. Mary's Industrial School, a home for misbehaving boys whose parents could not or would not control them. There Ruth learned to play baseball, and there he was discovered by Jack Dunn, a scout for the Baltimore Orioles baseball team. Ruth became one of the young players known as Dunn's "babes" (which is how he got his nickname) when he was signed to the Orioles in 1914.

Later that year, Ruth was sold to the Boston Red Sox. He quickly became a star pitcher and hitter and began to draw crowds to every game. His rowdy behavior off the field, however, caused problems for the team managers. In early 1920 Ruth was sold to the New York Yankees, the team he would stay with for the rest of his career. The first year he had a batting average of .376, he stole 14 bases, and he hit 54 home runs. Meanwhile, the second and third best hitters in baseball scored less than 20 home runs each!

Remarkably, Ruth did better and better every year. Ruth's spectacular feats meant equally impressive ticket sales for the Yankees as fans flocked to see the Babe in action. In 1923 he asked for and got the then-astronomical salary of $52,000 per year (he said that he had always dreamed of making a thousand dollars a week). The same year, the Yankees opened a new stadium, which had cost $2.5 million to build and which was known as "The House That Ruth Built."

Meanwhile, the men who played alongside Ruth were also extremely talented. The legendary Yankees squad of the 1920s featured first baseman Lou Gehrig , also a power hitter, as well as Bob Muesel, Earl Combs, and Tony Lazzeri. The Yankees won the World Series in 1923, 1927, and 1928. In 1926 they lost to another great team, the Cardinals, led by slugger Rogers Hornsby (1896–1963), whose .424 average in 1924 has never been beaten.

In 1927 Ruth had his most spectacular year ever, hitting a record 60 home runs and achieving a batting average of .356. Over his entire career, he would hit 714 home runs. He was a big, bulky, uneducated man who ate, drank, and smoked to excess; swore; got in fights; and chased women. But all this seemed to make him even more popular with ordinary people. Ruth had brought excitement and suspense to baseball, and he would never be forgotten.

The Negro leagues

During the early decades of the twentieth century, the mixing of black and white athletes in sports, as in other aspects of society, was either discouraged or prohibited by law. Major league baseball would not be integrated until 1946, when Jackie Robinson (1919–1974) was hired to play for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Beginning in the 1890s, though, African American baseball players played on their own, loosely organized teams. A big organizational boost came in 1920 with the formation of the National Negro Baseball League (NNBL) and the Eastern Colored League. Although these leagues underwent various stages of disbanding and reforming through the early 1930s, sixty-three black baseball teams played between 1920 and 1949. Some of the most famous include the Kansas

City Monarchs, the Philadelphia Hilldales, the Crawford Colored Giants, and the Homestead Grays.

Baseball was, of course, as popular with African American spectators as it was with whites. The NNBL, for example, drew more than 400,000 spectators to its games in 1923 (earning $200,000 in ticket sales). Players made a wide range of salaries and did not enjoy much job security, as teams formed and disbanded quickly, some times with little or no notice. Statistics were unreliable, and most games were not covered by the press, so it was difficult to establish records. But in the 1970s, Major League Baseball (the organization that oversees baseball in the United States) made a serious attempt to collect the records of black baseball players from this period.

In an effort to make up for some of the injustices of the past, several of these players were inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. The first was Satchel Paige, a pitcher who played for twenty-one years in the NNBL, followed by six years in the major leagues (with the Cleveland Indians, the St. Louis Browns, and the Kansas City Athletics). Others include catcher Josh Gibson, outfielder John Thomas "Cool Papa" Bell, and third baseman William Julius "Judy" Johnson.

Summarizing the achievement of the African American players of the Negro leagues, historian Mark Ribowsky notes in his book Don't Look Back: Satchel Paige in the Shadows of Baseball:

Despite tremendous hardships, the Negro leagues played on schedule. They kept their buses rolling through the East, the South, and the Midwest, lodged their players in hotels and rooming houses, rented stadiums, printed and sold tickets, even traveled with portable lights a decade before the first big league night game. Above all, the men of the Negro leagues played serious ball.

Excitement in the boxing ring

Before World War I (1914–18), most people considered boxing a violent, low-class sport, and it was even illegal in some places. After the war, however, many of the laws banning boxing were overturned, and commissions were set up to regulate the sport and prevent criminals and gamblers from influencing it. During the 1920s, boxing gained respectability and became one of the most popular spectator sports for people from all levels of society.

Among the stars of boxing, the most brilliant was Jack Dempsey, who reigned as heavyweight champion, the most prestigious of the weight categories, from 1919 to 1926. Raised in a mining camp in Colorado, Dempsey came from a rough- and-tumble, working-class background, which made him appealing to many ordinary people. In the ring, he was known for his ferocious style, which featured fast, short punches and quick knockouts of his opponents.

One of the decade's other most famous fighters was the more refined Gene Tunney (1898–1978), a New York City native who had started boxing as a soldier in World War I. The tall, blonde, handsome boxer was from a middle-class background, and he was said to enjoy such high-class pursuits as reading and tea drinking. His fighting style was less aggressive than Dempsey's, as he tended to wait for his opponent to tire before moving in for the winning punch.

In 1926 Dempsey and Tunney met in a boxing match in Philadelphia that was billed as the "Fight of the Century." There were more than 120,000 spectators on hand, while another 50 million or so listened in on the radio as announcers provided ringside coverage. About 1,200 reporters were also present, as well as a number of Hollywood stars, business leaders, and other famous people. Tunney won the match and became the new heavyweight champion, but he was never as popular with the public as Dempsey had been.

Other boxing stars of the 1920s include the undefeated lightweight (under 135 pounds) Benny Leonard (1896–1947) and Tiger Flowers (1895–1927), who in 1926 became the first African American to win the middleweight (under 160 pounds) champion title.

College football catches fire

During the 1920s college enrollment doubled as young people who in earlier years might have gone straight to work on farms or as skilled laborers, instead sought further education. With this growth in college attendance came increased interest in college sports, especially football. Attending Saturday football games during the fall and early winter became the thing to do for sheiks and shebas (popular nicknames for the fashionable young men and women of the Roaring Twenties) as well as many people who had never even been to college. The teams worked to increase spectator interest by developing more interesting strategies and plays. This effort was so successful that college football became a big business, with schools building huge stadiums to accommodate the crowds and maximize ticket sales.

In the East, some of the greatest teams of the decade played for Princeton and Yale universities and for the Army's West Point Academy. In the South, schools with powerhouse teams included Tennessee, Alabama, Vanderbilt, Georgia Tech, Southern Methodist, and Texas A&M. In the Midwest, the leaders were Notre Dame and the universities of Illinois, Iowa, Michigan, and Chicago, among others.

Midwestern stars included George Gippe at Notre Dame and especially Red Grange at Illinois. In the twenty games he played as a college star, Grange averaged 182 yards per game. In a 1924 game against Michigan, Grange carried the ball four times in the first twelve minutes and scored four touchdowns. Grange became the first athlete to appear on the cover of Time magazine, and one hundred thousand spectators were on hand to watch him play his final game for Illinois.

College football games were broadcast over the radio, and filmed highlights were shown in movie theaters, lending to the game's mass appeal. Football blended strength, skill, and strategy in a way that made it seem, as phrased by John R. Tunis in a 1926 Harper's Weekly article, "The Great American Game." Thus it is not surprising that a professional football organization was created. In 1920 the American Professional Football League was founded with eleven franchise teams. Two years later, it was reorganized as the National Football League. The league went about recruiting some of the most successful college players, such as Grange, who would play for the Chicago Bears.

Golf and tennis attract fans

Another sport that made great leaps in popularity during the 1920s was golf. What had once been a pursuit only for the upper class now became wildly popular with middle-class weekend athletes. The number of players doubled between 1916 and 1920, leading to a big increase in the construction of private and public courses. By 1928 eighty-nine U.S. cities had public courses.

As in other sports, the popularity of golf was sparked by the public's admiration for the star athletes of the age. In previous years, the leading figures in golf had come from Europe, where the sport originated. But in the 1920s a number of U.S. players took the lead. For example, U.S. golfers won the British Open, a tournament of long tradition that is always held at St. Andrews, Scotland, nine times out of ten between 1921 and 1930.

The greatest of these American golfers was Bobby Jones, who won the U.S. Open tournament in 1923 and spent the next seven years dominating every competition he entered. He was admired for his technical mastery of the game and his tolerant attitude toward fans. Although he suffered from nerves behind the scenes, Jones always appeared calm and in control on the course. Other great golfers included Walter Hagen (1892–1969) and Gene Sarazen (1901–1999), who, along with Jones, made up the Three Musketeers of U.S. golf.

Just as many amateur athletes across the United States were heading for golf courses each weekend, others were flocking to tennis courts to take part in a sport that, like golf, had once been only for the rich but was now enjoyed by a wide variety of people. Followers of this sport previously dominated by British, French, and Australian players were now inspired by a number of spectacular U.S. athletes, especially Bill Tilden and Helen Wills. Tilden won Great Britain's prestigious Wimbledon singles title in 1920 and dominated the sport until 1926, when he was felled by a knee injury. Supremely athletic and daring, Tilden was credited with turning tennis into a popular, moneymaking spectator sport. Over the course of her career, Wills won thirty-one major international tennis championships, including eight singles titles at Wimbledon; she also won a gold medal at the 1924 Olympics.

The 1920s saw the establishment of several well-known international tennis competitions, including the Whiteman Cup, which featured women's team play, and the Davis Cup.

Gertrude Ederle

Another sports star of the 1920s gained fame not on the baseball diamond, golf course, or tennis court, but in the water. Gertrude Ederle had been swimming since childhood and won her first world record at the age of twelve. Between 1921 and 1925, she held twenty-nine national and world swimming records, and she won three medals at the 1924 Olympics.

In the summer of 1926, Ederle became the first woman to swim the English Channel. At 7 am on August 6, Ederle plunged into the choppy waters off Cap Gris-Nez, France. After a grueling struggle against changing tides, she arrived on the English shore at 10 pm . The crossing had beaten the record of the fastest man by nearly two hours, bringing the young woman affectionately known as "Our Trudy" even more acclaim.

For More Information


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Web Sites

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Best of History Websites. Available online at Accessed on June 17, 2005.

"Charlie Chaplin." American Masters (PBS). Available online at Accessed on June 17, 2005.

Clash of Cultures in the 1910s and 1920s. Available online at Accessed on June 17, 2005.

Christy's Fashion Pages: Flapper Fashion. Available online at Accessed on June 17, 2005.

Interpreting Primary Sources. Digital History. Available online at Accessed on June 17, 2005.

The Jazz Age: Flapper Culture & Style. Available online at Accessed on June 17, 2005.